It seemed that once Sekayi had got him singing, Tareq could not stop. He sat atop the rusted hood of an old car body, drumming his bare heels against the metal, singing a silly song: “Shoes, shoes, shoes…”
Sekayi caught one of his waving feet, making him give a little squeal, and gently slid a sandal onto it.
“It’s still big,” he observed, sill holding Tareq firmly by the ankle as the boy squirmed and giggled. “Maybe he doesn’t need shoes. His soles are thick as elephant skin.”
Mhumhi, who was lying on the ground a few meters away, only flicked his ears. Shoes had been Sekayi’s idea in the first place, after he had observed Tareq running around barefoot in the garbage that morning. He’d convinced them to spend the better part of the day looking for ones that might be the right size. Frankly, Mhumhi saw little point, but Sekayi knew what a hulker needed better than he did.
Mini, who had splayed herself on the hood beside Tareq, raised her head and gave a sharp yap. A screamer was coming over the hill towards them. Mhumhi raised his head as well- beside the screamer trotted Kutta.
He got up slowly and stretched, waving his tail as she ran to greet him, twittering and whining. He put a paw over her shoulder and licked her ear.
“What are you doing with this screamer, huh?”
Kutta squirmed out from under his leg. “Oh, Mhumhi, look at her! Don’t you recognize her?”
The screamer had approached them somewhat more slowly, but she was smiling in that screamer way, stretching her brown, freckled cheeks.
“Is it… Dot?”
“Of course it’s Dot!” exclaimed Kutta, falling down into a play-bow with excitement. “I can’t believe I found her!”
“Dot!” cried Tareq, raising a little fist in the air; Mini gave him a sidelong glance.
Mhumhi trotted up to the screamer, sniffing. She fell into a squat, reaching for him, but he danced just out of his reach.
“Are you sure it’s Dot? It could just be one that looks like her-”
“Of course I’m sure it’s Dot!” Kutta seemed highly offended, and she ran back up to the screamer, who obligingly threw her arms around her neck. “See?”
“Oh, obviously,” said Mhumhi, but there was no real sting to his voice. The screamer’s sweet disposition was infectious.
“Someone you know?” said Sekayi, his shadow falling over Mhumhi as he approached. Dot looked up at him, her arms still around Kutta.
“We found her a while ago, and we called her Dot,” said Kutta, tail beating against Dot’s side. “I thought we’d lost her for good!”
“Hello, Miss Dot,” said Sekayi, extending a hand, and Dot let go of Kutta at once to wrap her arms around him. Sekayi laughed, though he sounded as if the breath had got knocked out of him.
“I see,” he said, patting her head. “This is a good one, then.”
Mhumhi suddenly recalled the meat in the little refrigerator.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at Sekayi. “This one is ours. Our friend.”
“Of course,” said Sekayi, and Mhumhi had no doubt he’d caught his meaning. “What a good girl. But you have to let go now.” He gently detached her hands.
“Hug me!” called Tareq, putting his arms out. Dot gave a hoot and stumbled through the trash to obey him. Mini gave a startled yap as she was knocked askew by their enthusiastic affection, forepaws scrabbling as she started to slide down the hood. Sekayi lunged forward and caught her.
“Better stay with me, Sister,” he said, and Mini licked his chin.
“I love Dot,” Tareq proclaimed, laying his head on her shoulder. “I want to marry Dot.”
This drew a big laugh out of Sekayi, though Mhumhi and Kutta only exchanged a confused glance.
“Okay, lovers,” he said, “go to the house and eat something. Dot can eat too.” He seemed to feel Mhumhi’s eyes on him, for he added, “Give her a boiled egg. I bet she’ll like that.”
“Okay, lovers!” Tareq trumpeted, sliding down from the car hood. He grabbed Dot’s hand and towed her back towards the concrete building.
Mhumhi watched him go, knees high with each step, feeling an odd mixture of emotions.
“I’ve never seen him so happy,” he confided to Kutta.
“He’s never had the chance to run around in the sunlight like this before,” was her soft reply. “And he has food, and water… And his family is with him all the time.”
Mhumhi watched Dot’s back as it disappeared into the dark doorway. Family, yes… but who did Tareq consider his real family?
“Kutta,” he said, very quietly, “what is our plan? What are we going to do from now on?”
Kutta said nothing, her eyes forward. Mhumhi felt a tightness in his chest. Their choice was obvious; they had literally stumbled upon the best possible oasis for their patchwork family. There was no plausible reason for them to leave.
Yet there was something of an ache of dissatisfaction within Mhumhi, though he was not sure about what. Perhaps it was just the last dregs of the sickness finally leaving him.
“Where’s Bii?” he asked, more loudly. Sekayi looked over at them.
“He doesn’t stay,” he said. “He wanders.”
“On those three legs?” asked Kutta. “In this place?”
Sekayi shrugged. “He is a wild dog,” he said. “Not tame, like this one.” He looked down at Mini, who was fixed in the crook of one of his arms, her rear legs dangling. She merely blinked.
“D’you want to keep looking for shoes?”
“Mm, yes,” said Sekayi, readjusting her a little, so that she bounced. “And maybe a backpack, so I can put you in it and carry you around.”
“I’ll probably pee in it,” Mini warned him.
“I’ll cut a little hole in the bottom for you,” Sekayi said, reaching out with one hand to steady himself as he climbed the crest of a hill. “Anyway, it’s not as though I’m buying it new.”
“My foot might get stuck in the hole,” Mini yapped.
“I’ll make three holes, and put your legs in two, so that won’t be a problem,” Sekayi replied. “How about that?”
“Ridiculous!” said Mini, though Mhumhi detected an element of bliss in her tone. They continued onwards, bickering gently. He looked at Kutta.
“Want to go?”
“We may as well,” she said, though she glanced back towards the concrete house. “You don’t think Dot will do anything to Tareq, right…?”
Mhumhi made a sound that expressed how likely he thought that would be. Kutta turned and nipped his ear.
“Well, what if she grabs him too hard, or something?”
“Then he’ll just scream at her,” said Mhumhi, jumping away and shaking his head. “Anyway, the worst she can do is pick him up and try to take him to Sekayi.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Kutta. “He’d be happy to go in that case.”
This statement edged Mhumhi’s mind closer to his dark thoughts from earlier. He shook his head again and bounded up the pile of trash.
“Let’s go, let’s go, Kutta!”
Kutta whistled, and sped after him, and they overtook Sekayi, splitting around him and dovetailing back together.
They ranged far that morning, climbing the rolling hills and poking about. Mhumhi quickly forgot that they were looking for shoes (he only had a nebulous idea of what was a shoe and what wasn’t anyway) and got caught up in exploring, following odd scents and digging things up. Kutta weaved around him, her ears pricked as she tracked the white birds circling above them, greeting the screamers they passed with a wagging tail.
Sekayi kept Mini tucked under his arm as he followed them more slowly, stooping over now and then to pick something up or pull it aside. Mhumhi, looking back at him, was aware of a jerkiness to his movements, the lines in his face growing deeper every time he bent forward.
Kutta brushed by Mhumhi, dragging something in her mouth, and deposited it in front of Sekayi.
“Is this what you were looking for?”
Sekayi looked rather surprised, scratching his chin with a scraping sound before he squatted down and picked up the thing Kutta had given him. It was large and made of cloth.
“I’m sorry, but it isn’t a shoe,” he said. Mini, in the crook of his arm, snorted.
“I know that,” said Kutta, catching his eye- they were face-to-face now, from the way he had squatted. “You said you were looking for a thing to carry Mini in, didn’t you? Use this.”
Mhumhi trotted up beside her as Sekayi’s expression changed again to one of surprise. He lifted the object higher and Mhumhi saw that Kutta was right, it was a bag- one with a strap.
Mhumhi opened his mouth to remind Kutta that Sekayi already had a bag very much like that- didn’t she remember, he’d used it to carry Bii in the other night?- but Sekayi was smiling, and he put Mini down on the ground and swung the strap over his shoulder.
“Thank you, Red.”
“My name is Kutta,” she said, whisking her tail. “Remember?”
“Of course,” he said. “Kutta. You are kind.”
Kutta looked to the side of Sekayi’s face, blinking, and Mhumhi too felt a bit mortified by the simple gratitude that blossoming in his expression.
Sekayi picked Mini up and put her in the bag, which surprised Mhumhi, who had thought she would protest and complain about the smell. But she seemed to settle herself inside, her nose just able to poke up over the side.
“You’ll need to put a blanket or something at the bottom,” was her only comment.
“And a dish of fresh water, too,” said Kutta, sarcasm creeping into her tone.
“That’s no good, it’d spill,” said Mini, turning her nose up even higher.
“I wish we’d had a bag when Vimbo was carrying you,” said Mhumhi. “Could have just dragged you along.”
“I got dragged along enough as it was!”
“Who is Vimbo?” asked Sekayi.
“A hyena,” said Mini. “He’s very dear to me. I think he’d get along with you. I hope he comes back soon.”
Sekayi made a neutral sound and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.
“Are we still searching for shoes?” asked Kutta. “Or may we go back now? I’m worried about leaving Tareq alone.”
“Tareq will be fine,” said Mhumhi. “You were talking earlier about how happy he is. He’s got plenty to entertain himself with while we’re gone…”
“Maybe he should not be left alone,” said Sekayi, and Mhumhi looked at him sharply.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s only a little child,” said Sekayi. “I hear they can get into trouble easily. But I would not know, since I’m a bouda.”
“No, you’re right,” said Kutta, eyeing Mhumhi severely. Mhumhi scuffed at the trash with one paw.
“I must ask…” Sekayi hesitated. “I couldn’t help but overhear you earlier. I’m sorry. I think my ears have a little bit of hyena left in them sometimes.”
“Overhear what?” asked Kutta, tail waving slowly.
“You,” said Sekayi, looking at Mhumhi, “you asked Red- Kutta- what you were going to do from now on, and she did not reply.”
“I heard that too,” said Mini. “I think everyone would like to know.”
“Well, you know what you’re going to do, don’t you?” said Kutta.
“That all depends,” said Mini, a trifle stiffly.
“On a number of things!”
“You are welcome to stay with me, Sister,” said Sekayi, reaching over to stroke Mini’s head. “All of you are. I think it is only the little boy that I worry about.”
“Why him?” asked Mhumhi. “This is the best place he’s ever been to, I think. Definitely the safest.”
“And he likes you, Sekayi,” put in Kutta.
“Yes,” said Sekayi, “but…” His dark eyes seemed to flicker. “Years from now, he will be all alone.”
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a startled look.
“Why, what makes you say that?”
“Are you saying we’d abandon him?” added Mhumhi, bristling.
“No,” said Sekayi, “but you are dogs. How old are you both? A year? Three years? And how long will you live?”
“Yes, hulkers have longer lifespans compared to us,” said Mhumhi. “We know that. But-”
“I don’t think you realize,” said Sekayi, quietly. “How old do you think the boy is? To me, he looks as though he is at least six or seven years old… he’s older than you, and still a child. And by the time you die, he will barely be an adult.”
“You’re lying,” said Kutta, putting her ears back.
“No,” said Mini, “he’s telling the truth. Hulkers grow slowly, and barely age at all. They have ten of our lifetimes, at least. I know my man had dogs that lived and died before me…”
Mhumhi was uncomfortably reminded of Lamya, her fingers twisting Biscuit’s ears.
“So what if we die first?” he said. “If he’s made it to adulthood, then we’ve done our job.”
“No, Mhumhi,” said Kutta. Her eyes had gotten wide. “He’s right… once we’re gone, Tareq will be all alone here.”
“But Sekayi, you’re a hulker, you’ll live-”
“I am a bouda,” Sekayi corrected him. “After we change, we only live around thirty years. I don’t know how many of those I’ve lived, but it has been many…” He laughed. “I stopped counting the rains here a long time ago. There seemed to be no point. I was alone.”
His black eyes seemed brighter. Mini had twisted her head up to stare at him.
“I don’t want the boy to suffer the same fate,” he said. “Not for so much of his life.”
“Tareq…” Kutta said, looking at the ground. Mhumhi drew back his ears.
“What would you have us do?” he demanded. “Kill him, then? Because if we take him anywhere else but here…”
The lines in Sekayi’s face had deepened, and he shook his head.
“If you and Kutta could mate,” he said, “you could have puppies for him, and they would stay with him…”
“We’re brother and sister!” exclaimed Kutta, looking appalled.
“And we can’t have puppies,” added Mhumhi, grimacing at the notion. “Painted dogs and dholes can’t breed.”
“Ah,” said Sekayi.
“You could always imitate your mother and steal some,” Mini suggested, her little eyes glittering.
Kutta growled, her tail quivering slightly. “Watch what you say.”
“A joke with a bad taste, maybe,” said Mini, her eyes going half-lidded, “but the idea-”
She paused. Mhumhi turned one of his ears back, then his head.
Mhumhi tensed at once, bewildered, the word far from anything he had expected to hear in the garbage dump. Over the hill limped Bii, panting, his tongue hanging from his mouth.
“Police,” he gasped, “painted dogs… hurry…”
“Here?” exclaimed Kutta, the fur on her back rising. “How-”
“They’ve got your child,” said Bii, looking up at them.
Mhumhi felt the words jolt through him, and he sprang forward, Kutta by his side.
“Wait!” cried Bii, stumbling after them. “It’s too late! It’s too-”
They were flying away, over the hills, unhearing, uncaring. Mhumhi’s heart thudded painfully at his ribs. Trash flew up behind them, papers whirling in the air.
“Blood,” gasped Kutta, and Mhumhi said nothing, for the scent of it had come to his nostrils too… It was definitely coming from the direction of the concrete house.
It was like the hotel room all over again. Blood… blood of their puppies… Mhumhi drew his lips back from his teeth and put on another burst of speed, passing Kutta, plunging over the next hilltop. He could hear chatters and yowls.
He skidded to a stop. He had reached the concrete house, Kutta still struggling to catch up on her shorter legs. Below him in the little valley where Sekayi lit his fires were three painted dogs. They were circling a great gray shape.
Kutta came up behind him and looked out on the scene.
“Vi-” she began to say, but Mhumhi pushed her with his shoulder.
“Sh! They haven’t noticed us yet- if we find Tareq, we might be able to get him away…”
Kutta cast a worried glance into the valley. Vimbo was hunkering low, squatting, his jaws open and his ears back. The painted dogs were all around him, chattering, lunging forward to nip at his flanks so that he whirled and yowled. Blood was streaming from his muzzle and haunches already.
“Come,” whispered Mhumhi. “I don’t see Tareq down there… he must be in the building.”
That was what he was hoping, anyhow. Kutta swallowed and stepped backwards, following him behind the tops of the hills and around, flinching every time she heard Vimbo cry out. Mhumhi pressed his ears back, willing himself to ignore it. Tareq first- then they could help Vimbo.
Kutta crept ahead of him, edging past the fire pit, and slipped into the darkened doorway. The painted dogs did not appear to notice, intent upon harrying Vimbo. Mhumhi crouched outside, keeping his eyes on them, panting a little. The teeth of the painted dogs flashed white as they twittered, their eyes shining. Two of them had notches in their ears.
Mhumhi’s heart went cold at the sight of this. And that was not all. Behind the mass of struggling creatures, lying discarded like so much garbage, were the bodies of two dead painted dogs. They were bloodied, and one had a head that pointed away from her neck at an unnatural angle.
How long had Bii taken to come find them, Mhumhi wondered, licking his lips. Vimbo yowled, lunging forward at a dog with a notched ear, but the other two leapt at his sides and worried the loose skin there.
From within the darkened doorway there came a hulker scream.
Mhumhi jerked with surprise. So did the others, the painted dogs and the hyena, and they all turned to look directly at him.